Monday, March 26, 2012

Bar Mitzvah Memories

The annual Bar/Bat Mitzvah cycle is well underway as the area's temples and synagogues come out of the winter doldrums and the late winter/early spring/pre-Passover circuit heats up.  Each week, another 13 year old (or 12 year old) (or two) are called to the Torah.  When I was growing up, the joke was "Today, I am a Fountain Pen."  My fear when my son took to the bimah a few weeks ago was that he would have done some Internet research and updated that line to "Today, I am an iPad."   Fountain pens used to be a traditional gift for the Bar Mitzvah, and young girls rarely were Bat Mitzvah'd, because in many synagogues they weren't allowed to read from the Torah, or even given an honor.   Times have surely changed, which is why a few weeks back I asked readers to think about their Bar/Bat Mitzvah experiences and send them to me, in hopes of refreshing people's memories.  Well, Lou Posner took me up on the request and here's what he sent me.

I was bar mitzvahed in May of 1956 at Har Sinai Temple on Bellevue Avenue in Trenton. Up until that time no girls had been bat mitzvahed there. My memory is hazy, but a young lady, Tula Schnorbus, younger than I, MIGHT have been the first Bat Mitvah at Har Sinai.

Parties were normally held at the home of the bar mitzvah boy. They were not lavish by any means. As I remember: pretzels and potato chips and cookies and soft drinks and dancing to '50's rock and roll music. Boys wore suits and ties, girls, pretty dresses and hose. Each of the invitees would give a gift to the bar mitvahed boy, sometimes a religious item like a mezzuzah, sometimes a fountain pen or piece of Boy Scout equipment. Never anything elaborate. The parents and perhaps a few friends of the family served as chaperones. Sometimes the party was held in the Bobby Blaugrand (in memory of a lad who had died young)Room of Har Sinai. The folding doors that normally separated two classrooms were opened to accomodate the party.

Being a reformed synagogue, Har Sinai treated females "equally," although back in those days there were no bat mitzahs, no female rabbis or cantors. The sexes were seated together in the sancutary and both girls and boys were eligible to be confirmed at about age 15.

My own bar mitvah was unusual in two respects: I was the first bar mitvah at Har Sinai who ever (perhaps to this day?) translated his Torah portion directly from the scroll: no typed-out English translation. Cantor Marshall Glatzer tutored me in this project, and could never resist a chuckle when we came to the word in my Torah portion, "tachus," meaning "under" but also...

The other unusual event was that the rabbi, Rabbi Joshua O. Haberman, would normally, at a bar mitzvah, say a few nice things about the bar mitzvah and his family and then get on with his weekly sermon. In my case, Rabbi Haberman omitted any sermon and took the time to praise my accomplishment at the bimah and also to praise my parents, Herman and Irene. No sermon.

(ed. note--The first link takes you to a bio of Rabbi Haberman from the Jewish Policy Center and the second to The Congressional Record from February of 1995, when Rabbi Haberman served as the Chaplain of the Senate for a week.  He was introduced by Senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon.

Far right is Rabbi Haberman from a picture found in the Trentonia collection of the Trenton Public Library.  View more photos from the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Trenton by clicking here.

On a personal level there was a third unusual aspect to my bar mitzvah: my grandfather, Samuel "Pop" Brodner, a member of the Brothers of Israel Synagogue vowed that he would wear his yarmulka on the "bimah" during my bar mitzvah. There was no arguing with him. But...on the day of my bar mitzvah, Pop Brodner sat in a beatiful gray suit on the Har Sinai bimah...with no yarmulka. I took this as a sign of high respect from my grandfather, that he would forego his tradition and belief for his grandson's bar mitzvah. (In those days no one ever wore a yarmulka in a Reform Synagogue and no one ever went without one in an Orthodox or Conservative shul: there was no mix-and-match back then.)

Bar Mitzvah was preceded by a number of years of after-school Hebrew School, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, for about an hour each day. We studied Hebrew but also our own Torah portions. Some boys who had difficulty with reading Hebrew were helped with vinyl recordings of their portions.

To have held the "yad" in my hand in front of the sacred scroll, to have sung the Torah blessings, to have looked out into the congregation and addressed them in my bar mitzvah speech was a major moment in my life, one that I will, of course, never forget, but one that also inspires me to this day.

Please chime in with your Bar Mitzvah memories.  Whether it was Aunt Ida pinching your cheek and saying "Shane Punim" until she drew blood or a moment that was most meaningful to you, please send me your recollections by e-mail, or by clicking the comments button.


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